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Atheism Rising, But God Is Not Dead Yet: 10 Ways Religion Is Changing Around the World

Religion is alive and well in the 21st century -- but it also looks very different now.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Dima Konsewitch

 

For most of the 20th century, smart people assumed -- with smug certainty and probably more wishful thinking than they'd be willing to admit -- that humanity's long obsession with religion is finally winding down. God is dead -- done in at last by the forces of enlightenment and reason. Humanity is now free to chart a new course, without worrying about the Big Bad He-God In the Sky.

But, as the last 30 years have rather brutally demonstrated to American progressives (religious and otherwise), those reports of the death of religion turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Here we are, with a firm foothold in the 21st century, and it's pretty clear that God is very much alive and well and living almost everywhere on the globe (except Europe and Canada, as we shall shortly see).

God or no God, the religious landscape of the planet isn't what it was in the last century. In fact, it's changing in some essential ways. And whether you're a person of faith or no faith, those changes have deep implications for the way other important factors -- culture, technology, economics, the environment, and politics -- play out as this new century unwinds.

What follows is a quick summary of some of the key drivers that are changing the landscape of faith around the world. It's hardly comprehensive, but I did try to hit the high spots. (Agree? Disagree? Got another one to add, or a point to amplify? Drop a comment below, and let's talk about it.)

1. God Is Not Dead

In 2007, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life went around the world asking people a straight-up question: "Religion is very important to me." Yes, or no?

The numbers in Europe were low to middling. In Great Britain, 33 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" in their lives. The number was 27 percent in Italy, 21 percent in Germany and 11 percent in France. Poland came in at 36 percent, with Russia at 14 percent and the Czech Republic at 11 percent.

Closer to home, the numbers in Canada looked pretty much like those in England. And in the US, you will not be surprised to learn, the numbers were about twice as high as they were in Europe. Here, about six out of 10 respondents said that religion was very important in their lives.

But when Pew went to Latin America, Asia and Africa, the numbers were radically different. In Guatemala, 80 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" to them. That number was 77 percent in Brazil and 72 percent in Honduras -- but only 39 percent in Argentina.

In Asia, the "yes" total was 95 percent in Indonesia, 92 percent in India, 91 percent in the Philippines, but only 12 percent in Japan. And in Africa, Senegal checked in at 97 percent, Nigeria at 92 percent and Angola at 80 percent.

So the world is still a very religious place, indeed, though it's still not well understood why Europe should be such a secular anomaly. (My own guess is that its long and bitter history of religious wars simply exhausted Europeans, and they've given up religion as too divisive to tolerate.) These numbers show pretty clearly that modernism didn't kill religion, and postmodernism isn't likely to, either. Faith may be on the wane in a few spots, but it's still kicking hard everywhere else.

2. The Center of Gravity for the Christian World Is Moving South

A few years back, a spate of books like Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendomand Globalizing The Sacred: Religion Across The Americas by Manuel Vasquez and Marie Marquart argued that Latin America is going evangelical at such a furious rate that Protestants could outnumber Catholics as early as 2025.

Further examination of this trend suggests that it's not happening quite that fast. While people in these countries often do succumb to the charms of Christian missionaries, a lot of those conversions don't stick for very long. Even so: Protestantism is growing in the global south, and the conversion cycle is rapidly introducing Protestant ideals and values into these cultures, which could over time create some deep shifts in Latino culture.

In Africa, Christian and Muslim missionaries are squaring off in turf battles that transcend national borders, and researchers from the Pew study cited above are frankly worried that conflict and competition between the two conversion-oriented faiths could eventually lead to political disruptions and military confrontations. Increasingly, an African's most defining affiliation isn't his or her tribe or nation, but his or her faith.

Meanwhile, here at home, American Catholics have noticed that a growing number of the priests serving their churches are coming up from the global south -- and are often far more traditional than their comparatively liberal congregations. As these priests move up through the church hierarchy in the years ahead, this southern traditionalism may make the church even more conservative as the century rolls on. Over the long term, this trend could easily alienate North Americans and Europeans to the point where the Catholic Church becomes largely a phenomenon of the southern hemisphere in another generation or two.

3. The Kids are Different

The religious trends of the country over the past 40 years have been dominated by the religious preferences of the Baby Boomers and Generation X -- two generations that have been highly individualistic and inner-directed, generally preferred individual "spirituality" over group-oriented "religion," and distrusted all forms of institutional authority -- especially religious authority. By and large -- and especially as they've aged -- the religious focus of these two generations has been on personal salvation, rather than changing the world.

The Millennials, on the other hand, distrust religion for somewhat different reasons.

According to research conducted by Barna, this is an ethnically diverse generation that was born connected, and does almost everything in tribes and teams – a tendency that is already making them more communal and outer-directed in their spirituality than any group we've seen since the GI generation. For them, faith is meaningless unless it leads to action. The thousands of community service hours they logged as teenagers instilled in them a strong sense of social justice, huge confidence in their own ability to make a difference, a growing trust in their ability to create effective and inclusive institutions, and an conviction that religion should be about serving the world instead of perfecting yourself.  

This shift has implications for every religious institution in the country, but it's particularly rocking the foundations of Christian fundamentalism. A Barna Research study last year found that large numbers of young adults from evangelical homes are leaving the faith because they dislike their churches' limiting attitudes toward science, the arts and sexuality. They don't like the right-wing culture war. They grew up with it, they're tired of it, and they want their elders to knock it off.

Because of this, the ones who were raised in megachurches are abandoning those churches in droves. They're not particularly interested in policing theological boundaries; if they affiliate with a faith at all, it will be because they're looking to join a community where people are coming together to work on the stuff that really matters: social justice, poverty and the environment. 

4. Atheism Ascendant -- and Not Just in the Cities

We're also seeing a resurgence of atheism. Much to the surprise of both the very religious and the entirely irreligious, non-theism consistently shows up as the second or third most popular philosophical worldview across most of the US. According to a 2008 survey by the City University of New York, atheism is cited as the number one orientation (by proportion of adherents) in Washington and Idaho, and it's number two or three in almost all the other states.

Nationwide, atheists rank #3 overall, just behind the Catholics and the Baptists -- and the numbers are even higher among Americans under 30.

But what's really weird about this is that it's not just a phenomenon of the liberal coasts. Non-religious people make up a higher percentage of the populations of Idaho, Montana and Nevada than of California, Massachusetts or New York. It turns out that rural does not equate to religious after all -- a trend that has some interesting political implications in the decades ahead.

5. Environmental Ethics Go Mainstream

The global inter-religious dialogue on the theology of environmentalism has been going on for about 20 years now, which is long enough that it's soaked through an entire generation of young clergy, and is now being absorbed into their congregations.

The idea that the living earth and its vast matrix of interlocking systems are inherently sacred was a heretical idea just 25 years ago. But when Pat Robertson goes on TV and tells his flock that climate change is serious and real and Jesus wants them to fix it (though he's very recently recanted), you know there's some real change afoot in the way even some conservative Christians are assessing their relationship to the planet. As we look ahead to solving some of our big problems, it's good to note that (with a handful of very noisy exceptions on the right-wing Christian Nationalist side) most of the world's most prominent religions have taken up the task of teaching people what's required, and priming them to act.

6. The Marketplace of Spiritual Ideas Is Going Global

It's a small world, and it keeps getting smaller. We've got twice as many people as we did 50 years ago. But we've also got far more access to all those people, through trade and the Internet and social networks, than we could have even imagined a decade ago. And that interconnectivity stands to change our religions along with everything else.

The Internet has opened up a virtual global souk of religious ideas. Last year, I went online and downloaded the PDF of an 80-year-old book that was the only account in English of life among the traditional Yezidi tribes of Kurdistan. They're almost extinct now, since their remote homeland has been a war zone for the past 30 years. But if you're interested in their unique folkways -- or in Apache girls' coming-of-age rites, or what goes on in Mormon temples, or reading comparable translations of the Kama Sutra -- well, there's a vast feast of amazing material just a quick Google search away.

This is already resulting in massive religious cross-pollination -- a trend that could move us toward a sort of syncretic, celebratory sharing of traditions that could be very healthy for everyone. But, on the downside, it's getting easier for fundamentalists to find each other, too. Some scholars of Islam report that apocalyptic stories of the Hidden Imam, long suppressed by ayatollahs and mullahs, are taking on new themes that were clearly borrowed from Christian fundamentalist end-times tales. (Startling, yes -- and also proof that not all change is for the better.)

And for some faith groups, especially those that thrive on secrecy and restricting information or criticism, it's making life just plain hard. One wonders if the full scale of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal would ever have been known if the victims hadn't been able to find each other on the Internet. Mormonism isn't faring at all well in this new environment, either: members and would-be converts can easily find accurate historical information about the church's early history that church leaders had been suppressing for decades, out of (apparently justified) fear that it would undermine the testimony of the faithful.

7. Religion as a Way of Reclaiming Cultural Identity

All this syncretic sharing and blending may yield some weird and wonderful things, but there's a counter-trend here, too. In the developing world, some groups are very consciously re-connecting to their traditional religious roots as part of their struggle to resurrect national and cultural identities that have been lost through generations of colonial oppression.

The best example of this is the re-emergence of the hijab among Muslim women the world over. While women have no choice about this in many Islamic countries, a woman wearing a hijab on a Western street is likely making a voluntary statement of pride in her Islamic identity, and affirming her own culture. Likewise, in Russia, the Orthodox Church is re-emerging as Russians reconnect with their lost culture and history in the aftermath of the Soviet era.

While it's great to embrace the global spiritual marketplace where we're welcomed in, it's also important to recognize and respect when people are leaning harder than they might otherwise on religious traditions because they offer a fragile lifeline back to a lost cultural identity.

8. New Empires, New Religions

It's a historical truth that religions tend to spread and grow right alongside rising economic and political powers. In this century, the world's two up-and-comers are India and China. As they become bigger players on the world stage, we can expect that those countries' dominant religions -- Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism in particular -- will become far more visible and influential on the global religious scene.

9. The Hardest Truth: Fundamentalism Isn't Going Away

The best we're ever going to do is contain it. Authoritarian religion, like authoritarian politics, takes root wherever people feel like they're losing control over their traditional ways of life. This is why fundamentalists are taught in their churches to look for potential converts who are going through important life transitions, or have just sustained some kind of heavy emotional loss. They know those people are vulnerable, and may be receptive to the idea of having someone else make their decisions for them.

Unfortunately, there are going to be a lot more of these vulnerable souls in the world as we go through wrenching process of moving off of carbon fuels, rebuilding our economy and our infrastructure, and coping with the dislocations caused by climate change. A lot of people's well-ordered lives are likely to be devastated by events, and in the aftermath, they may be willing to follow anyone who promises to restore structure and meaning to their lives. 


It seems likely that these movements could become far more prevalent in the transitional years ahead of us. They could even become big and powerful enough to slow the transition process down, or stop it altogether. 

This is yet another reason we need to plan a responsible and intelligent transition to a new economic and energy paradigm. As long as people see themselves moving toward a better future, we'll probably be able to keep the religious and political authoritarians at bay. But the risk is real, and we need to be thinking about it now.

10. Technology Changes Everything -- Including Faith

Technology is already challenging our ideas of what it means to be human, to be alive, to be a spiritual being. Genetic engineering, cloning, nanotechnology, bionics, and computers that can outsmart us have been the stuff of science fiction for 60 years, but that future is now here, and it's going to be interesting to watch our current crop of religions wrestle with the new ethical and theological questions these technologies raise.

Probably unsurprisingly, the biggest breakthroughs on these fronts are being made in the very same countries that Pew found (back in item #1) to be the least religious. And yet the world's religions are going to have to find ways to deal with these changes. in fact, this rethinking of the whole human enterprise as we've understood it for the past couple of millennia may be the biggest challenge faced by all the world's faiths in the coming century.

If they do the job well,  I think we may end up with a far more expansive and inclusive sense of the sacred than we can possibly imagine right now. In fact, this century may be giving us the best chance humans have ever had to create a global spirituality built on enduring human values: compassion, justice, community, and the common drive to share and celebrate the wonder of our lives.

But if they do it poorly, religion may continue to be the biggest obstacle to taking the decisive steps we need to deal with our growing number of human-created crises.

Religion changes, and will continue to change. But if the last century didn't knock the religious impulse out of us, it may be time to accept that it's here to stay.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet's Vision newsletter for weekly updates.
 
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